Clemson’s ‘epic’ comeback at Death Valley fueled by DJ, Etienne

Clemson’s ‘epic’ comeback at Death Valley fueled by DJ, Etienne
Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei (left) and running back Travis Etienne (right) seen in action against Boston College during a game on October 31, 2020. (Source: David Grooms)

CLEMSON, S.C. (WIS) - Confidence was on display in D.J. Uiagalelei’s first career start at Clemson.

The true freshman quarterback delivered against Boston College at home in the absence of Tigers star signal-caller Trevor Lawrence.

“He really, really played an unbelievable game for his first start — a lot of pressure on him,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “You know you’re stepping in for Trevor Lawrence.”

Lawrence, the top pro prospect in college football, was unable to play after testing positive for COVID-19 days before the showdown.

On Thursday, at around 12:45 p.m., offensive coordinator Tony Elliott saw Uiagalelei in the quarterback room watching film. He did not think much of it until a little later when Swinney notified Elliott that Lawrence would not be available to play.

Elliott immediately reflected on his first experience as the offensive coordinator facing a similar situation in 2014 when starting QB Deshaun Watson was injured.

“We’ve been here before. I drew my confidence from the fact I was a first-time coordinator and had Cole Stoudt. I remember how the guys rallied around him. That was going to be my objective to get these guys to rally around D.J.”

Swinney then left Elliott’s office and spoke with Uiagaleli. The two had a great conversation in the quarterback room, according to Elliott.

“For some of the things Coach Swinney was looking for, he immediately had some confirmation through that conversation,” said Elliott. “There was no communication after that about, ‘Hey, we got to reset the plan, restructure the plan.’ This is the plan based off of the structure. We are going to challenge this young man because we know he can do it.”

Uiagalelei more than managed the moment of filling the big shoes. He threw for 342 yards for two touchdowns and added another one more on the ground. The total passing yards were the third-most by a Clemson freshman in his starting debut.

“It was super cool to start my first game in college today,” said Uiagalelei. “It was kind of crazy waking up like, ‘I am going to start today.’ It was super cool to be able to have my parents there.”

“I felt really good because he was confident, excited, and ready for his opportunity,” said Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott. “We saw it from the day he walked in here verse our defense in practice and scrimmages in fall camp, that he was going to be ready to play.”

Uiagalelei engineered the largest comeback at home in school history. Clemson found itself trailing Boston College 18 points late in the second quarter before rallying to win 34-28.

“Great leadership from a young guy, that’s why he was the best player in the country,” added Swinney. “We’ve seen that. He’s just not overwhelmed at all. A very confident kid, [who] knows who he is [and] made some big-time throws.”

Uiagalelei exhibited tremendous leadership on Etienne’s fumble by the end zone, which resulted in a 97-yard scoop and score by the Eagles to make it 21-7. Swinney said D.J. went to Etienne following the play to let him know he has his back. Swinney certainly had Etienne’s, as well, after the mistake.

“I told him, ‘Don’t you worry two seconds about it,’” said Swinney to Etienne. “'If I’m going down, I’m going down with you, big man.' He’s made a million plays. That was a bad one. I’ll live and die with that guy any day of the week.”

Outside of the one mistake, Etienne was stellar in a record-setting performance in Death Valley. He became the ACC all-time leader in rushing yards in the third quarter.

Etienne finished the game with 20 carries for 84 yards with one rushing touchdown and seven receptions for a career-high and school-running-back-record 140 yards with a receiving touchdown. Etienne won the Leather Helmet Award as the game’s MVP.

“He’s such a complete player now,” Swinney said. “He was a one-dimensional player when he first got here. Now, he’s a Swiss army knife. He can do it all. Exciting to see. He’s special. That’s why he came back to lead the team like he did.”

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